Today I looked up the meaning of your name. I have met people named Juliana here and there but never questioned it’s origin or what it could possibly mean. A smile came to my face when the words “youthful” popped up. Full of youth.
I only knew you for 30 days but my dear, you changed my life forever. When I was told your story before meeting you, I was afraid. I had just been informed that you were locked in a house for a week without any food, your mother fled and your father was dead. You were malnourished beyond belief and was suffering from tuberculosis and they were pretty sure you had HIV as well. I kept wondering how do you greet a child who has been through such things in their short life? I wanted to avoid you and play with the healthy kids, I wasn’t ready for this.
Once I saw your eyes, I was all in. I walked up to you and your big eyes met mine but glanced away. Your lips stayed in the same position and the look on your face was as though you had given up on everyone in the world because you felt like they had given up on you. Your eyes spoke of wisdom, they told your story…a story too dark, tragic and lonely for a 18 month old child.
I picked you right up and held you in my lap. I examined your tiny feet and compared your hand to mine. I kissed your round, recently shaven and scabby head. I leaned down to you and promised that you would never feel lonely ever again. I whispered I love you over and over. You didn’t make a sound. You didn’t move. You just kept looking at me with that stare.
My days consisted of walking in the gates of the babies home, setting my bag down and going straight to where you were. After about a week, you recognized me. I remember the first time you lifted your arms up to me when you saw me walking towards you. Trust.
After a few weeks, everyone started calling you my baby. We’re not supposed to have favorites but I believe God connects each one of us for a reason. The promise I made to you the first day that I met you, I thought about all the time. I wondered how I would leave you in May as my heart grew stronger with love for you each day. One day I was holding and praying over you. God placed “2 years” in my heart. I had no idea what that 2 years meant, but I told Him that if it meant in two years you were still at the babies home, I would do everything in my power to adopt you. I told a nanny about this confirmation that God provided and she said that you would be a difficult child to care for, as they were pretty confident you had HIV. I told her that would never ever stop me from caring for you for the rest of my life.
You started getting better. There was hope in everyones eyes. “Auntie Mary, your baby is feeling good today!” “Auntie Mary, your baby is eating a lot today”. I was so excited for you. I would lift you up and you would smile. One time I was holding you, I lifted you in the air above my head. Your 4 pound body allowed me to raise you as high as my arms would allow. You not only smiled the biggest smile…but you laughed! It was raspy, sweet and angelic! I couldn’t help but bring you straight to my chest as I started laughing and crying uncontrollably. I started this project for you. I would take a picture of you in the same spot every week for the next 5 months. I thought this would be a beautiful documentation of your body transforming into the strong girl you are. I envisioned what you would look like at the end of the 5 months and I saw you standing with a big belly, chubby arms, bones hidden by fat, hair on your head and a smile on your face. I had confidence that we would get to see this project finish…but it only lasted 3 weeks.
“Auntie Mary, your baby is sick” are not the words I wanted to hear upon arriving to the babies home Monday, February 11th. I was supposed to go to the village that morning. I actually was supposed to go to the village every Monday for the last month to help teach photography and document the projects going on. To be honest with you, I could never go because of you. I told you I would never leave you, I promised you that. You had not been feeling well that week and in the pit of my stomach I was worried to go 4 hours away into Uganda without any communication with the outside world. I needed to know you were okay..I needed to be close to you..but I also knew I needed to start these photo projects some time. I would get to spend lots of time with you for the next 4 months and it was okay to not be by your side all of the time. These were the words that I would tell myself over and over again. I told a family that was visiting from America that I would be at the babies home whenever they arrived so I could document them meeting their son that they were adopting for the first time. When I walked in the gates that morning and I was informed they could not come because they were sick, I was bummed but also so happy to be in Jinja and not the village because I could see you. That is when the nanny spoke those words to me.
It all happened in a flash. I rushed over to you in the nurses office and your breathing was horrible. Small, fast gasps of air were going through your tiny lungs. You were struggling. I scooped you in my arms and we took off for the hospital. In that moment I knew that is why I am here. That is why I’m not in the village…not in America. I held you in the car and prayed the most desperate prayer to the Lord. I kept asking you to hold on and fight..we just needed to get you oxygen. I’m sorry if that was selfish of me.
We got to the childrens hospital and joined the hundreds of children and mothers waiting to be seen. I visited this hospital the night before to check on Jovia and Innocent who were sick and admitted, and was repulsed by what I saw. A small room was filled with about 30 beds but more than 100 sick children occupied them. The floor of the rooms were layered with sleeping mothers and guardians, staying close to their sick children. Outside, sleeping men on benches with their motorcycles next to them..taking a break from work to be as close to their children as possible. It was overwhelming but to have been able to witness that the night before was such a blessing, I needed to be as strong as I could for you that day.
We checked you in and things were moving pretty quickly for Ugandan standards. There was minimal urgency but you were moving to the front of the lines. I took comfort in the nurses and doctors not moving quickly, for some reason I felt the desire to trust that they knew what they were doing. The fact that they weren’t rushing you straight to the emergency room brought comfort to my heart. You were scheduled to go to your final HIV check up that day to confirm if you were positive or negative. You were dressed and ready to go when your breathing starting acting up, about 1 minute before I walked in the gates that morning. They proceeded to take your blood for that test…again something I held hope in because obviously if you were in such horrible condition, they would have you hooked up to an oxygen tank immediately right? Your test results came back positive and they started giving instruction that we would start the ARV treatment on Wednesday. Wednesday. There would be a Wednesday.
We waited in the emergency room line. We watched a boy convulsing on the “emergency room table” that was in the middle of the room surrounded by beds with children 2 to a bed needed intensive care. Mothers were giving me dirty looks for holding you and being close to the front of the line. They were being protective of their children, wanting them to be next and I so badly wanted to give up that spot to them but I needed to stay put for you and your weak body. Ninety minutes later, we were invited into the room. For this being the “emergency room” there really was no urgency present. Again, just wanted to put all my trust in these doctors. As the head doctor instructed the present nurse how to take blood from a child…I knew we were not in the best care but now was not the time to think those thoughts. They took more blood and inserted a cannula into your hand. They slowly made room on a bed for you and hooked you up to an IV…still there was no oxygen present. In fact, they placed you on the opposite side of the room from the oxygen machine. You laid down on the bed that you shared with a baby who was wrapped up in a blanket, not too sure what they were there for. I sat on the ground and the babies home nurse left to go get you medicine, so now it was just you and me in a room with about 35 other Ugandan kids, mothers and doctors. I sat down on the ground and hugged your body with my arms.
You seemed to be taking the IV fluid well and then all of a sudden you gave a cough and started gasping for air. I watched you so intensely and your chest stopped moving up and down. I looked around for help and saw the nurses standing in the corner looking over at us. More so that I was a white girl holding onto you than showing concern for your health. I rushed over and told them you need oxygen, you weren’t breathing. I kept thinking that one day we would talk about this. I pictured us at a park and you were so tired from running around and playing on the jungle gym that you needed to take a break to catch your breath and I would share about that one time in your life that you breath stopped but God then made you very very strong. The doctor mosied on over to a broken down machine near you and thought this would be the best time to start repairs on it. It took a minute for them to hook you up to oxygen but that minute or two felt like 10.
You took a deep breath. I was begging you to hold on. I felt it in my heart that we were going to make it through this. The way the doctors were so extremely casual about your condition..I just felt like you would be okay soon. All of a sudden your eyes got really big and you looked at me. Everything stopped. I searched your eyes and I watched your chest so closely to look for that rising and falling movement. Nothing. I checked for a pulse. Wrist. Neck. Other wrist. Nothing. I screamed help to the nurses. The three came back and checked. I looked up at them and they looked down at me, hovering useless giants.
All of a sudden they took your IV out and removed your oxygen line. I looked at them like they were crazy. Why would they do this to you? You were still alive. They started wrapping you up in your blanket. I started yelling. I started unwrapping you. I held you and begged for you to come back…but you didn’t.
I felt this release. I knew you were safe. I knew you were in no more pain. I knew you were running into the arms of Jesus and taking the deepest breaths in the world. I knew you were smiling your toothy smile and laughing that raspy breath. I knew there was no such thing as HIV, tuberculosis or malnourishment. I knew you were Home.
Still you were here in my arms and I said I would never let you go.
That visit to the hospital the night before, Sharon told me how it is not socially acceptable for women to cry in the facility. They cannot show weakness as their children are sick and troubled. They cannot grieve when their children pass away. If they do cry, they will worry everyone else in the hospital and that would make the whole setting uncomfortable. Well, I made a lot of people uncomfortable in that moment my love. I cried and cried and cried until they asked us to leave.
Everything else was a blur. I bought you a coffin and a beautiful dress adorned with flowers for the next day when you would be buried. We shared the news. We mourned. We rejoiced. We made arrangements. We made sure someone was always by your side as we promised you would never ever be alone again. Up until the shovel smoothed out the top of the soil, I was there right with you.
I was telling a friend of mine the week before you passed that I was so frightened. I didn’t know if it would be worse to lose you in my arms or to have received the news over a phone call. To be honest, I am still not sure. As hard as it was to be the one holding you when you left this world to go Home…it was truly the biggest honor.
I will see you again my love. Who knows if it will be in 2 years or if it will be way down the road. You are with me forever and ever and you will always have a piece of my heart. I believe the reason I was so afraid of you in the beginning was because I was afraid to love someone so much. Sometimes I still get afraid. I freeze when I hear a child is sick or I meet someone who looks like you and it makes me want to run away. It makes me want to just hang out with the healthy children and love on them. But then I remember your laugh and the way you opened your heart up to me. If I could be there for every child like I was there for you, I would experience this over and over again.
Loving you until the last breath was the most beautiful connection with Jesus. From my arms you went straight into His. I know from my last breath I will go straight into His and right by His side, there you will be.